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20 May 2020, 13:44
Sören Amelang Benjamin Wehrmann

Researchers weigh in on scope and scale of hydrogen use ahead of Germany's national strategy launch

Clean Energy Wire

All available technologies for carbon neutral hydrogen production should be considered in Germany's forthcoming National Hydrogen Strategy, the Institute of Energy Economics at the University of Cologne (EWI) has said in a policy brief. "Natural gas-based applications can make an important contribution in the short and medium term, for example by pushing out coal in the power sector or oil in heating," the EWI stated. "In the medium to long term, CO2-neutral hydrogen holds the greatest potential." The research institute argues that production of 'blue' hydrogen, which is made by using natural gas and neutralising CO2 emissions through carbon capture and storage, should not be ruled out in favour of producing only 'green’ hydrogen, which is made exclusively with renewable energy sources – a debate that has dominated drafting of the national strategy for months. The EWI says green hydrogen production will be difficult to bring to scale for the time being due to a lack of renewable power generation capacity. Moreover, modest demand for the CO2-neutral fuel means that companies are still reluctant to invest in green hydrogen production, which keeps prices high and therefore demand low. A "technology-neutral" start of industrial hydrogen production in the country would allow the market for synthetic fuels to grow faster. Focussing only on green hydrogen thus "could become an obstacle for cross-sectoral decarbonisation and delay infrastructure expansion," the EWI concluded.

A paper by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) also argues against focusing exclusively on green hydrogen from the start. "In order to implement concrete pilot projects internationally and with mature technologies, flexibility is required. The decisive factor is not the colour theory of hydrogen, but the avoidance of climate-damaging emissions in the production and transport chain," write Kirsten Westphal, Susanne Dröge and Oliver Geden. The authors argue that   different production methods could be initially used to get a hydrogen economy going, before giving priority sequentially to climate-neutral production methods. "For a transitional period, the EU could also include low-emission hydrogen produced from natural gas by CCS or pyrolysis," says the paper, which calls for aligning Germany's strategy closely with EU plans for a Clean Hydrogen Alliance, due to be presented in the summer. "A German hydrogen policy cannot be conceived separately from developments at EU level and in other member states, it must rather be designed at European level," the paper says.

But the scarcity of green hydrogen due to insufficient renewable capacity leads others to prefer a limit on the technology's scope of application rather than calling for fossil-based supplements. While hydrogen currently appears to be the only viable option for decarbonising large parts of aviation, shipping and, to some extent, road freight, the use of synthetic fuels should not be expanded to the automotive sector, environmental umbrella organisation Climate-Alliance said. Battery-powered cars would pose a much more efficient alternative to vehicles driving on e-fuels, while traffic volumes in general should be shifted to trains and other public transport options, the alliance said. Based on a study by the Institute for Applied Ecology (Öko-Institut), the environmental group said e-fuels could even lead to higher emissions if the "enormous amounts of renewable power" needed to produce them are not available.

Germany's National Hydrogen Strategy is expected to be launched in the coming weeks, which might become part of a "green stimulus" programme to restart the economy after the coronavirus crisis.

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